The #23 Missouri Tigers (4-0) have completed their out of conference schedule undefeated for the fifth straight season. During the Tigers' bye week, before heading into Big 12 play on October 9th, the Missouri staff will be hitting the road to do some recruiting, and the Missouri players will take a partial break from the physical demands of the football season, as well as get a head start on preparation for their conference opener against the Colorado Buffaloes.
This week gives the team a chance to get some injured players back to full strength, and to work on some things that the staff deems are in need of adjustment, or improvement. It's likely that the Tigers will get most of their injured players back in time for Colorado, although the timetable for Aldon Smith's return is less certain. He may require more time, but I think the current expectation is for Aldon to play against Colorado. Senior safety Jasper Simmons has been suspended from the team indefinitely for a violation of team rules. He will miss the Colorado game.
During Monday's Big 12 Teleconference, Coach Pinkel talked about some of the things that his team needs to work on this week.
"I think the consistency of our offense," said Coach Pinkel, "that's probably the thing, the consistency of our execution. Mostly, just execution, you know, playing catch, and being responsible, and so on and so forth. I think there's an area that we're a little concerned about. We're concerned about penalties. We've got too many penalties................. We don't like to be a team that beats itself. Most areas in our kicking game have been okay. Our kick-off return is an area that we can improve. Both sides of the football, it's third downs, getting better at third downs. Then, big plays on defense. I could talk another twenty minutes. It's an ongoing process of trying to get better every week."
Getting better every week is a formula for the Tigers to put together a great season. The Tigers have played pretty well so far, well enough to win, but will have to keep getting better if they want to achieve their goals.
The defense has played well thus far. There have been several defensive standouts. Junior safety Kenji Jackson is one of three Missouri players to have registered a team-leading 24 tackles, including 2 TFLs, and has been credited with forcing a fumble, although I think he's knocked the ball out more than once. Jackson is also tied for the team lead with 2 interceptions, and has been a big factor in restoring the Tigers' identity as a defense that creates turnovers.
Senior LB Andrew Gachkar has also registered 24 total tackles, as has sophomore LB Zaviar Gooden. Gachkar's total includes 3 TFLs, to go with 3 forced fumbles, and an interception. Senior safety Jarrell Harrison and RSF LB Andrew Wilson have each played well, with 22 and 17 total tackles, respectively. Junior LB Will Ebner missed the first two games, but has come out in the last two games and punished ball carriers, registering 13 tackles and a forced fumble.
Sophomore DE Aldon Smith has 15 tackles, including 4 TFLs, and 3 QB sacks. He's not alone up front. Dominique Hamilton (14 tackles), Brad Madison (9 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 QB sack), Jacquies Smith (8 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1.5 QB sacks), Terrell Resonno (7 tackles), and Michael Sam (7 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1 QB sack, 1 forced fumble, an interception, and a safety) have all made significant contributions.
Missouri's starting corners, seniors Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland, have gotten off to very good starts this season, and both have been very productive, with 13 and 12 tackles, respectively, and both have gotten in on the turnover parade. Gettis has one interception, and Rutland has 2 interceptions thus far on the young season.
The Tigers' defense is allowing 320.5 yards/game, and rank second in the conference in scoring defense at 14 points/game. They're giving up 146.2 yards/game rushing, and 174.2 yards/game through the air. Missouri has held opposing quarterbacks to a rating of 96.55, good for fourth in the Big 12 conference. The Tigers have forced 13 turnovers through four games, which is tied for fifth nationally.
Missouri's per-game turnover margin (1.5/game) is tied for 10th in the nation.
Offensively, the Tigers are averaging 37.8 points/game, and 431.5 yards/game of total offense. Missouri has been balanced on offense, with 154 yards/game, and 3 TDs/game on the ground, and 277.5 yards/game, and 1.25 TDs/game through the air.
Starting QB Blaine Gabbert has completed 68% of his pass attempts for an average of over 10 yards/completion. His yards/attempt is respectable, at 6.88 yds./attempt. He's done a pretty good job of taking care of the football, with only three interceptions, versus his five TD passes thrown. His QB efficiency rating is a respectable 132.96.
Another positive for the Tigers through the first four games is that freshman QB James Franklin has seen action in two games, and has played well. His passer efficiency rating is even better than Gabbert's. More importantly, Franklin has gotten into games, and appears to be ready, if needed.
Sophomore WR T.J. Moe and junior TE Michael Egnew have emerged to provide Blaine Gabbert with a pair of reliable receiving targets. Moe (9.25 receptions/game) and Egnew (8.25 receptions/game) rank among the top receivers in the nation. Junior WR Jerrell Jackson has played through a broken wrist. The Tigers need Jackson and fellow junior Wes Kemp, or one of the younger receivers, to step up and provide Missouri with additional receiving threats.
The Tigers have tried to get the ball down field, and the statistics bear out some success in this regard, but both QB and receivers need to do a better job in the vertical passing game. One thing that I think we'll see in the coming weeks is a concerted effort to better utilize the outside receivers in the passing game.
Diversifying the offense also includes improving the running game, which is an area where the Tigers need to continue to get better. The rushing attack has shown signs of life, and has proven to be pretty effective at times, but there's plenty of room for improvement in what could become a vital weapon in the Tigers' offensive arsenal.
Currently, the Tigers are utilizing a running back by committee approach, and it seems to be working. I'm not sure that Missouri has a back capable of holding up under a 20 carry/game load, but the four backs being utilized provide the Tigers with a versatile rushing attack. Freshman TB Henry Josey's 8.2 yards/carry, 4 TDs, and 53 yards/game rushing leads the team in each category, and junior De'Vion Moore, sophomore Kendial Lawrence, and fellow freshman Marcus Murphy have each found the end zone, and are each averaging over 5 yards/carry.
Missouri's kicking game is again pretty solid. Senior punter Matt Grabner has been excellent, and junior place kicker Grant Ressel has been very good. Sophomore Trey Barrow's kick-offs have mostly been very good, and the kick-off coverage is better than in recent years. The one area in the kicking game that needs the most improvement is in the kick returns. I think Murphy will do well returning kicks, but he made a big mistake on one last week, which just killed his average. Chalk that up to a freshman mistake, and don't make it again. Murphy has return ability the Tigers have been missing since Jeremy Maclin decided to go to the NFL. He's not quite as fast as Maclin, but he'll make people miss, and is a threat to break one at any time.
Entering fall camp, the biggest question I had about this year's team was what kind of team chemistry would be developed? How well would this team come together, and what kind of leadership would emerge and become established, and how well would this team gel on and off the field?
Thus far, I've seen a lot of positive signs to answer those questions. Early on, the defense has set the tone for the team, and I've seen several veteran defensive players not only step up their game considerably, but they have also set the tone as far as a positive outlook and work ethic. Several people have remarked about how the entire defense, led by guys like Aldon Smith and Kevin Rutland, refused to lose during the San Diego State game, and gave the offensive players a huge lift, not only on the field, but also from the sidelines.
Offensive linemen, led by guys like Tim Barnes and Elvis Fisher, have held themselves accountable, and have demonstrated a mature, responsible approach, and an exemplary work ethic. There's an unmistakable positive chemistry developing along the offensive line.
These positives are in contrast to what has displayed itself as an uncharacteristic lack of discipline among the players. Not only have a few individuals faced disciplinary action for their off-field behavior, and it appears to me that Coach Pinkel has really cracked down on those, with stiffened penalties, but there has been an unacceptable lack of discipline on the field, manifested in the form of too many penalties. Coach Pinkel has addressed the "too many" penalties, as well, and is determined to have a disciplined team.
Coming out of the break, the Tigers face a stretch of games that will define their season, a near-gauntlet, if you will. There are no easy games, but also no games that can't be won. There is no one on their schedule who can't be beaten. So, the challenge for Missouri becomes the task of preparing for every opponent each week with full purpose, and of playing their A game each week, and of getting better each week. If the Tigers can rise to these challenges, week in and week out throughout the conference season, then the gauntlet will have become the stairway.